02 November 2017

To hunt for Paula's poems

My previous job at an online publication allowed me to interview, and that generally means discover fictionists from the US. One of them was Paula McLain. From the get-go (you know, her aura) I knew that I'd like her. The woman invited respect in me. At some point in our conversation I made a mental note to check out her books. It's her education. It showed. And I must've had this affinity with her because she started out as a poet.

I hadn't read YA in while, so I bought A ticket to ride, thinking here's a perfect chance to revisit the genre; plus, it's her debut novel. The story took forever to take off — and frankly it wasn't hinging on a good plot but rather on atmosphere and a sort of teenage mystique — but I hung on and enjoyed the ride anyway because of said mood and mystery. I finished it without that rewarding feeling, though I wasn't exactly disappointed as well. If anything it served as a charming sampler.

The adolescent narrator is also a protagonist. I can't quite place her in time, how far removed she is from the events she is unraveling. She sounds as if the story just happened in the last couple of years, though her voice is already too wise and detached. That said, Paula's strength is in her narration. She can draw you in with her language and commitment to build up tension despite little action from her characters.

But what I really want to talk about (what got me into opening this computer) is The Paris wife, Paula's blockbuster hit, which I enjoyed very much. You can tell the amount of work she's put into it. The thoughtfulness. Her rhythm is more engaging, each chapter brings a reward, either in terms of insight or plot movement, or both.

Paula McLain. The Paris wife. New York: Ballantine Books Trade Paperbacks, 2012.

It stars Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway's first of four wives.

What made me smile in this book is Hadley's realization that she's not in Ernest's now-classic The sun also rises, despite it being an account of their Pamplona adventures; and that the woman she is jealous of is nothing but a muse — Duff and Ernest are not having an affair, the writer is only using her for his art.

That tickled me a bit because it reminded me of this artist I used to go out with in college. Somehow I made my way into one of his comic strips, one of our exchanges was slightly edited to terminate in a gooey punchline. A common friend alerted me to it and, while I giggled, I didn't take it seriously. I understood early on that we can use real people in our fantasies without us wanting that very fantasy to be real. The panel featuring moi was not an indirect love letter, it was a clever piece of juvenilia.

The Paris wife also heightens my desire to read Paula's poetry. So far I admire her control. She is tender even as she lets the dark in. Her surprise turns of phrase are hints that she must be a great poet ("Now that I knew what I could bear, I would have to bear losing him"). So are her dabs of imagery.

This passage is taken from a chapter on Hadley, Ernest, their child, and Pauline's trip to the beach. The adult triangle is trying to establish a set-up where the three of them can live as husband-and-wife-and-lover. Hadley just went into the water:
I ducked my head and then surfaced, and swam out several hundred yards, where things were still. I treaded water and let the swells buoy me. At the top of one, I could look back at the beach and see them small and perfect, my husband and child and the woman who was now more to us than we could manage. From that distance, they all looked equal and serene and I couldn't hear them or feel them. At the bottom, in the trough of the wave, I could see only the sky, that high white place that seemed not to change much for all of our suffering.

As a kind of  experiment, I stopped swimming and let my arms and legs fall, my whole weight fall as deep as it would. I kept my eyes open as I sank down and looked up at the surface. My lungs began to sting, first, and then burn, as if I'd swallowed some small piece of volcano.

I knew if I stayed there and let the water come into me, come through every door of me, some things would be easier. I wouldn't have to watch my life disappear, bead by bead, away from me and toward Pauline.

The little volcano in me burned, and then something popped, and I knew that even if I didn't want to live this way anymore, I also didn't want to die. I closed my eyes and kicked hard for the surface. (p 285)

Top Shelf